Inside Passage from Vancouver to Anchorage on the Grand Princess.

One of our long-time travel bucket list items was an Alaskan cruise vacation. My wife Danielle and I have been dreaming of an Alaska cruise adventure for some time. Unfortunately, the pandemic got in the way. Finally, this year, we decided that it was time to start traveling again while we were still able. 

We also decided to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with our best friends. Two couples we’ve been hanging out with since high school: Guy & Lucie and Daniel & Nancy. You’ll see them at various moments in our image gallery and vacation pics. Traveling with friends is not without its challenges. But with good communication and an open mind, it can be a very rewarding experience. Besides Daniel is an excellent and well-equipped photographer. That meant that each situation, each location, always had a second pair of eyes to capture it from different angles and viewpoints.

Planning Our Alaska Cruise Adventure

Image courtesy of Princess Cruises

Between the decision to go and the departure date, it took about 2 months to get our act together. For our July 1st(Canada Day) departure, that meant starting our research in early April. We searched online for the best deals, dates and itineraries. The number of choices can be quite dizzying. Plus finding ten days of availability in 6 people’s busy calendars was also a challenge. When traveling as a group flexibility is key. 

We also had to consider the availability of contiguous staterooms. This isn’t necessarily a requirement. But it made the trip a whole lot nicer. We were able to unlock the partitions between balconies, so we could all watch the scenery together.

Lastly, we wanted to ensure that quality medical care was available on the ship in case of complications. Danielle had been undergoing radiation therap, up until three weeks prior to departur. Fortunately none occurred.

Choosing a Cruise Line

We did quite a bit of comparison shopping online. There are offerings for every taste and budget. In the end, we decided that Princess cruises offered the best value compared to other choices. We’ve sailed with Princess before – a total of six times so far – and have always found it a great choice. In addition, we had sailed on the Grand Princess before on our cruise to Hawaii. In our experience the crew is friendly and attentive, the ships are luxurious, clean, well-equipped and well-maintained. Princess is considered a premium cruise line and it shows.

So many possibilities and options to consider! Rather than book directly online, we decided to enlist the help of a Princess Cruise Vacation Planner. Dawn Parton would prove to be a very helpful resources throughout the process. Helping to find the right staterooms, preparing a quote, and helping us with tours, transportation and more. Before committing, she prepared a quote with a courtesy hold. That gave us enough time to get the green light from our friends before booking.

Packing for an Alaska Cruise

The weather along the Inside Passage is constantly changing and you will need to pack for a variety of conditions. This is because temperatures generally drop as you head north. Leaving Vancouver in mid-summer, you can encounter very warm weather. Have a lighter choice for departure day. Later in the cruise, things start to get decidedly chillier as we reached Prince William Sound, especially as the weather turned foggy and rainy.

For detailed recommendations, check out this post on What to pack for an Alaska cruise vacation.

the air gets chilly in deck when cruising to Alsaska
The air can get chilly when on deck so bring a warm windproof jacket, a scarf and a head covering of some sort.

Alaska Cruising and the Weather

We all know that the weather is unpredictable from day to day. So, it’s no surprize that long-range forecasts are extremely unreliable. When planning more than a month ahead, daily long-range forecasts on weather sites are iffy. They give you historic averages but nothing you can rely on. And with climate change, extreme conditions and disrupted weather patterns, historical data is, in my opinion, virtually meaningless. 

However, within 10 days of our departure date, we were able to get a better sense of the overall trend. This is helpful in planning what to pack. In the weeks before our departure, the forecasts were for cold, overcast, and rainy weather. Nothing led us to believe that we would enjoy a record 10 straight days of sun and warm temperatures. 

Tracking the Weather

To keep everyone in our travel party up to date on potential weather scenarios, I set up an Excel spreadsheet. In it, I added the links to the online weather forecast for each stop for the date of our arrival. I made it a shared document and linked it to our travel group. A simple click would take us to the forecast for the arrival date at each location. This was particularly helpful in the seven days prior to sailing helping us fine tune our packing requirements.

Remember that the weather on shore and at sea can be vastly different in terms of temperature and humidity. Ocean temperature will have an impact on how chilly things will get. The temperature aboard ship is greatly influenced by surface water temperature. Check out this map by the National Weather Service that show ocean surface temperature around Alaska. According to CNN, the water temperature was 5 degrees warmer than expected at the time of sailing.

Getting to Vancouver, our Alaska Cruise Departure City

Cruise Pro Tip: Air travel is generally as unpredictable as the weather. Avoid unnecessary stress by flying in the day before your sailing. Also, pick the first flight out so you have a Plan B should something go wrong.

On our way from Montreal to Vancouver, we got lucky. The first flight left almost on time, but the next flight out was cancelled. As a result, our flight became overbooked, and ten passengers had to be moved to a later flight. Bad weather and a shortage of pilots seem to be the most frequent causes for flight cancellations in summer.

An additional stress reliever for us is to stay at the airport hotel the night before our flight. A few extra hours of sleep are well worth the extra cost. The airport hotel in Montreal also offers an indoor parking package. So your vehicle runs less risk of theft or a break in than in the unsupervised exterior lots.

Vancouver Cruise Port at Canada Place
The Grand Princess was docked at the Canada Place Cruise Ship Terminal

Alaska Cruise Day 1 – Leaving Vancouver

It was July 1st, Canada Day so the city was in a festive mood. Canada Place, where the cruise port is located, was also the scene of the festivities. People dressed up in red and white attire bearing the maple leaf. This of course led to many road closures and traffic snarls along the way. Again, always best to get there early to avoid needless stress. 

The Canada Place Cruise Ship Terminal is a modern and spacious facility. There is a disembarkation area where your taxi or Uber can drop you off. Also, an agent is posted every 25 feet or so along your way to the registration desk. So there’s no way to get lost. Everyone was courteous and helpful.  

Keeping track of our luggage

There was a minor incident with our luggage. The baggage handlers and dock workers were having a labour dispute at the time. This delayed our departure and caused a bit of anxiety. 

Fortunately, we took the precaution of adding AirTags to our luggage. As a result, we could tell exactly where they were located on the dock. We could even spot the baggage container from our balcony. Once the tags showed the suitcases were on board ship, we could relax and enjoy the cruise. 

Upon arrival we were greeted by Lorena our Cabin Stewart. A bright and pleasant woman who did a wonderful job of keeping our stateroom clean and in order. It was always well supplied with water and all the usual necessities. She was always cheerful, greeting us by name. More than once she came rushing to open our stateroom door when we had our hands full.

Cruise Pro Tip: 

It’s always advisable to include medication, a change of clothing and other essentials in your carry-on bag. Bring it with you aboard ship rather than leave it with the baggage handlers. It’s a minor inconvenience to lug it around. But can be a life saver if something happens to your bags as almost happened to us.

Short clip of the view when leaving Vancouver on our Alaskan cruise vacation.

Once we were underway, the view leaving Vancouver was spectacular. Particularly from the upper decks at the stern of the ship. It’s a great location to shoot video of the city as it slips away. You’ll see Stanley Park and cross under the Lion’s gate bridge. There’s plenty to see on either side of the ship as you cruise down the Georgia straight towards Vancouver Island.

Since it was Canada Day, we were treated to a fireworks display hosted by the city of Campbell River BC. This spectacular display of red and white pyrotechnics lasted for over a half hour. It culminated in an impressive crescendo just as the ship passed by. This display was apparently set to first nations music, which we could faintly hear from the ship. Seeing the pyrotechnics display from aboard ship offered a unique perspective and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As we passed by Campbell River on Vancouver Island, we were treated to a spectacular fireworks display. It was themed in red and white (the colors of the Canadian Flag) to celebrate Canada Day.

Alaska Cruise Day 2 – Exploring the Inside Passage

Sea days — days when the ship does not stop at port — are ideal for relaxing onboard. This extra time to unwind was great for adjusting to the pace to life on a cruiseship. Indulge in a late breakfast at the Horizon court. Or better yet, order breakfast in bed by taking advantage of room service. If you have a Premier Package, it’s included except for the gratuity.

As the ship makes way through the Inside Passage between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert. At speeds of up to 20 knots, it can get breezy on deck. But it’s was easy to find a spot out of the wind where you can still take advantage of the bright sunshine.

Relaxing in Style

One lesser-known feature on most Princess Ships is The Sanctuary. An adults-only area at the front of the ship offering a magnificent 180-degree view of the ship’s progress with very cushy loungers, plush towels and attentive service. There is a moderate cost per guest, but it’s worth a try at least once. Some like it so much that they choose the full-cruise experience. This give you the same private lounger assigned for the duration of the cruise.

The view

This leg of the itinerary offers views of the costal islands on both sides of the ship. But online maps can be deceiving. We expected to be cruising close to these islands, but, they’re actually quite a distance away.

Gala Evening Onboard

This was the first Gala evening of our Alaska cruise, with our shipmates dressing up for the occasion. We were assigned table 178 in the Da Vinci dining room on deck 6, mid-ship. It’s a grand banquet hall with dozens of attentive staff ready to answer our every request.

We had the pleasure of being served by a wonderful team of wait staff. It was composed of Jover our head waiter, John our waiter and Mafaldo who had the most important job – serving us drinks. What an amazing team!

We had selected the Premier Package that included cocktails and wine by the glass. The selection is a little limited but the quality was excellent. We were particularly impressed by the sparkling wine aka champagne and made it a tradition of beginning each dinner with a glass. So, we certainly kept Mafaldo busy.

Traveling with food allergies or sensitivity

Since I’m gluten intolerant, food safety is very important to me. The dining room team went the extra mile in making sure everything was perfect. I love how they bring you the menu for the next day and prepare your selection to order. Same deal for my friend Guy who is allergic to shellfish (except scallops for some reason). Again everyone took care to ensure there was no cross-contamination. Excellent Job!

Cruise Pro Tip: 

A cruise offers many opportunities to gain a few extra pounds. And if you want to avoid gaining weight, or want to maintain healthy blood sugar level, it’s important to stay active. 

Most ships including the Grand Princess have a well-equipped gym with the latest fitness equipment and free weights. Don’t forget to take advantage of the Promenade deck exterior walkway that doubles as a jogging/walking track. Get in your laps and breath in the pure ocean air.

Alaska Cruise Day 3 – Our First Port of Call – Ketchican, AK

On day three of our Alaska cruise, we awoke to an early sunrise in our first port of call: Ketchikan, AK, the “Salmon Capital of the World”. According to the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau website, “Ketchikan is best known for three things: feisty salmon, idyllic scenery, and an incredibly rich Alaska Native culture.” And we had an opportunity to witness all three firsthand.

From our portside stateroom balcony, we awoke to a quaint fishing cove populated with all manner of vessels both still sleeping and already hard at work. We had a full day ahead of us so the first stop was to the Horizon Court for a big hardy breakfast.

Breakfast Aboard Ship – the Horizon Court

The breakfast buffet is quite impressive with a range of choices for everyone. There are eggs of any style and an omelette station that prepared a host of ingredients to order. Cheese, cold cuts, fresh fruit, Asian specialties, every imaginable form of baked goods and several hot dishes, home fries, bacon, ham and more. The smoked salmon is to die for.

Of particular interest to me was the dedicated gluten-free toast station with a clean toaster. Make sure you ask the attendant to pass your slices through at least twice though or you’ll simply get warm gluten-free bread.

Leaving the ship, we were greeted by the requisite souvenir shops and diamond sellers, typical of any cruise port around the world.

Things to See in Ketchikan

A short walk brought us to a village bustling with activity as tour operators vied for the attention of disembarked passengers. They all seem to offer the same main attractions: a visit to a park home to the local salmon hatchery, a visit of the falls and the largest collection of totem poles in Alaska and perhaps the world.

Rent a Tour Bus

We landed on a private tour in a recent and comfortable shuttle bus offering us full control of what we wanted to see over the course of three exciting hours. Chris, our tour guide, in his booming voice narrated our itinerary with interesting anecdotes, fun facts and loads of statistics on Ketchikan, its history, culture and economy.

Alaska cruise excursions are an opportunity to explore the history and wildlife. What better way than by private van.
Alaska cruise excursions are an opportunity to explore the history, scenery and wildlife of this remote destination. And what better way to do so than by private van?

Eagle Watching in Herring Cove

After spending a few minutes visiting a park created by the children of Ketchikan, we moved on to the main attraction: Herring Cove and the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary. We learned that the region is home to the largest temperate rain forest on earth – the Tongass National Forest.

What’s cool about this very popular location is the abundance of salmon, which swim up the Cove to spawn. Apparently, after a lifespan of some 5 year, Salmon return to the exact spot where they were hatched to repeat the cycle of life and then die. These dead salmon in turn attract a large number of black bears and their offspring who feast on the salmon. Surprisingly, the bears are picky eaters, and only consumer the skin, head and eggs, the fattiest part of the fish.

The discarded salmon carcasses in turn attract the bald eagle in droves. We had the good fortune of witnessing over a dozen adults and their young, who were learning how to hunt and react to the presence of humans and bears. Fascinating!

Eagle in Herring Cove in Alaska
Eagles are plentyful in Herring Cove in July as the salmon make their way to spawn. Bring a long lens here.
Black bear come to feast on salmon in Herring Cove, Alaska.
Black bear mother and cub come to Herring Cove to feast on salmon and can be observed from a safe distance.

Saxman Totem Park

After hundreds of photos taken, we hopped back in the bus and headed to the Saxman Totem Park, considered to be the largest collection of totems in the world. Some of these meters-high sculptures were beautiful, others were less spectacular and in poor conditions. There was what appeared to be a sculpting class going on in one of the main buildings and pleasant odor of red cedar wafted through the air.

Of course, there was a gift shop stuffed with native art, some of which was exquisite though pricy, while other items were more affordable but sometimes kitschy – like a native art dishrag (we bought a few to take home…lol).

Creek Street Historic Boardwalk

Last stop was Creek Street and a tour of the old-time buildings built by the first settlers (or were they replicas, not sure). A group of those were part of the “red-light district” which could be reached by Married Man’s trail, named for the patrons who snuck in back way to Miss Kitty’s place, Ketchikan’s first Madam.

Walking along the boardwalk, we saw a couple of harbor seals (quite large in fact) as well as several salmon making their way to the spawning grounds. We meant to stop at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show but ran out of steam and time. It was off to the ship for an evening of dining and entertainment!

view from the stern leaving Ketchikan, AK
View from the stern of the Grand Princess leaving Ketchikan, AK. A few hearty passenger swim in the pool.

Alaska Cruise Day 4 – Juneau, AK

The next day, the 4th of July, our Alaska cruise brought us to Juneau, AK with a shore excursion to the Mendenhall Glacier in the plans. We took the morning off and took the mid-day departure to the glacier located about 30 minutes from the port.

Our drive and tour guide nicknamed “Bobcat” did a great job of narrating the drive, pointing out various oddities along the way including Alaska’s first fast-food restaurant. Bobcat probably gets his name from his very peculiar laugh which in some ways is similar to that of stand-up comic Bobcat Goldthwait. Kinda says it all, right?

Mendenhall Glacier National Park

Mendenhall Glacier is a 13 mile river of ice that flows into Mendenhall Lake.

Starting at the visitor’s centre, a series of trails take you to a main viewing area called Photo Point Trail (about a 20-minute walk there and back) and the second takes you closer to the glacier – though with a partially obstructed view – and Nugget Falls (roughly a 1-hour return trip). Both are an easy walk so hiking boots are not required.

There is plenty of flora along the way including various native wildflowers, and a few toxic weeks including Devils’ Club with its painfully thorny stalks and leaves that look like large Maple leaves.

Mendenhall glacier is a tidewater glacier made up of a 13-mile river of ice which terminates at Mendenhall Lake. It was our first in-person glimpse of a glacier. We were impressed by its characteristic intense blue color mixed with dirt and glacial sediment. This is because the highly dense ice absorbs light from the red end of the spectrum, while reflecting blue light. It’s sort of unreal how it seems to glow.

You’ll also note the grayish green color of the water in Mendenhall Lake. This is caused by the fine dust created as the glacier grinds the rock into a fine, flour-like dust. This dust is a major source of nutrients for the surrounding ecosystem.

Cruise Pro Tip:

A long zoom lens is essential for great wildlife photography on an Alaska cruise

This first port of call is a great location to immortalize your vacation with a good Digital SLR. Keep in mind that the glacier is quite a distance away from the viewing areas. A regular 58 mm lens is fine for establishing shots. A recent iPhone has decent telephoto capabilities, but image quality at a great distance can be challenging.

To capture the beauty of the Mendenhall glacier up close, you’ll need a long telephoto lens – I brought my 75-300mm zoom. My friend Daniel had a super-long 150-600mm lens. If you bring a drone, you’ll have to leave it with security when boarding the ship. Also pay attention to any restrictions on where you can use one.

4th of July Parade

Back in Juneau, we had the distinct pleasure to witness the 4th of July parade making its way through town. Vintage automobiles, brightly decorated floats and vehicles, veterans, cheerleaders, and marching bands took the lead. However, it was the Ati-Atekan dressed in ceremonial attire made the parade extra special and underscored the importance of first nations culture in the region.

Alaska Cruise Day 5 – Skagway, AK

On the fifth day of our Alaska cruise, we sailed north to Skagway, our last port of call at the end of the Inside Passage. In the previous weeks, there had been a rockslide along the dock where we were birthed and for security reasons, we were brought ashore using a bright orange tender craft.

Disembarkation in a tender craft

A view of the port as a tender craft carries passengers to shore.

The rockslide area had been secured with heavy steel netting, but better to ere on the side of cautions since Alaska is one of the most seismically active areas in the world. As a matter of fact, shortly after our return home, Alaska was shaken by a 7.2 magnitude quake off the Alaska Peninsula. More on that later.

After leaving the tender craft, we took a leisurely stroll into town, which was made of a collection of restored gold-rush-era buildings, some over a hundred years old. These historic structures host everything from saloons to gift shops to art galleries and not to mention five churches and a library. Skagway is home to just over 1,000 permanent residents, but with thousands of tourists walking its streets, it felt like a lot more.

White Pass & Yukon Railway

The White Pass & Yukon Railroad offers a glimpse of the rugged terrain that Klondike gold rush prospectors faced in their quest for the precious metal.

For this port of call, we chose the White Pass Summit tour – the short version which lasts close to 3 hours. There is another 6-hour tour available, which ventures deeper into Canada. As you would expect, the views were spectacular as we ascended to an elevation of 2,888 feet, briefly crossing into British Columbia (no passports required).

Our tour guide host narrated the ascension, sharing stories from the history of railroad, its role in the Klondike gold rush and the many hardships endured by the estimated 100,000 prospectors who came to Alaska in the 1890s. Very few of them found gold and many lost their lives in search of the elusive precious metal. It was the outfitters who sold them the one ton of material each prospector carried with them that struck it rich.

Then it was back to the ship (via tender craft) and another evening of fine dining and entertainment.

Alaska Cruise Day 6 – Glacier Bay National Park

On day 6 of our Alaska cruise vacation, we entered Glacier National Park for a day of scenic cruising. What that means is that the ship slowly cruises along the coastline of Glacier Bay, providing a great view of the glaciers to both side of the ship so that passengers who observe the sights from their stateroom balcony won’t miss a thing. 

Viewing the Glaciers

A highpoint of the cruise was definitely Margerie Glacier, a massive river of ice in Glacier Bay.

One of the highlights of the day was John’s Hopkins Glacier, a 12-mile-long tidewater glacier and one of the few advancing glaciers in the region. Many glaciers in Alaska and elsewhere in the world are currently receding, meaning they diminish day after day under the effects of climate change.

Of course, we were hoping to observe a glacier calving, but none occurred. Calving is when a huge chunk of glacial ice separates from the glacier and comes loudly crashing into the sea. This is often seen as a sign of climate change, but in fact is part of the normal glacial process. After nearly an hour of patient waiting, none occurred, and we continued our way, a little disappointed, but still awestruck by the beauty of the scene. 

Throughout the day we leisurely cruised by Gilman, Grand Pacific, Lamphlug, Margerie, Reid, McBride, Muir and Riggs Glacier. Each one is in some way different from the other and each glacier is spectacular to observe. You can read more about each of these glaciers by visiting the National Park Service Website. You’ll find loads of information about the park and can download a detailed map of Glacier Bay.

See more image of Glacier Bay in our Images of Alaska Inside Passage Gallery

Wildlife in the Park

But Glacier Bay offers more to see than glaciers. Wildlife is ever-present. In particular, sea otter are plentiful and playful. We were surprised to learn that these marine mammals are quite large, an adult measuring 5 to 6 feet and weighing up to 100 lbs. Sea Otter have the densest fur of any mammal with over a million hairs per square inch and is essential to their survival in the frigid arctic waters. 

Day 6 was also a formal night, with portraits being taken in the plaza area. Dinner was Surf and Turf with and the desert, fittingly was Baked Alaska.

The show was a dazzling R&B production in Princess Theater. Great entertainment by the cast of talented signers and dancers. Colorful costumes and great music made this show a big success.

Cruise Pro Tip: 

Port or starboard, there isn’t a better side to view. Frequent cruisers tend to favor the starboard side of the ship, presumably because they will get a better view of the sights along the itinerary. And while this may be true for other destinations, for our Alaskan cruise, we found that our portside staterooms offered a magnificent view of the glaciers. The captain made sure that both sides of the ship were able to view the glaciers as we cruised up and down Glacier Bay.

Alaska Cruise Day 7 – Prince William Sound

Fog on route in the Gulf of Alaska
A gloomy day in in the Gulf of Alaska with fog all around us. Not much to see until later in the day.

On the last day of our Alaska cruise, the weather stopped cooperating. Overcast and foggy weather met us as we traversed the Gulf of Alaska in the morning. Later in the day, it improved slightly as approached Prince William Sound and College Fjord. Surrounded by the Chugach Mountains, College Fjord contains a total of five tidewater glaciers and five major valley glaciers plus dozens of smaller ones. 

College Fjord Glaciers

The largest are Harvard and Yale. The glaciers in College Fjord were named after the oldest Eastern universities US by the members of the Harriman expedition that explored the region in 1899. Check out the image of College Fjord from space and interesting details on the Nasa Earth Observatory.  

Foggy and cloudy weather isn’t all bad. It makes for some great moody photos in a surreal landscape.

Cooking Show and Galley Tour

At 10 am sharp we made our way to the Princess Theatre for a cooking demonstration by the ship’s Maitre’d and head chef, more comedy routine than actual cooking. But they did provide some delicious recipes to try at home including lamb chops “on the barbie”.

Membres of the kitchen and service staff were on hand to provide a musical number, followed by a tour of the ship’s HUGE kitchens. The galley is an ocean of stainless steel and organized efficiency that produces thousands of meal each day.

An impromptu wine tasting at Vines

Enjoying fine wine on our Alaska cruise

Before dinner, we decided to have an impromptu wine tasting at Vines. Vines is a wine bar located on the piazza, Deck 5. They have a selection of fine wines by the glass for every taste and price range. Joy, our bartender/sommelier did a wonderful job helping us organize the tasting from the wine selection available. A wonderful selection of whites, reds and rosés from California, Oregon, France, Italy and Portugal among others. We ordered a few appetizers using the Medallion App and had them delivered to the wine bar. Talk about great service.

Final dinner onboard

Since this was our last night abords, we splurged on a second dinner at the Crown Grill. The steaks are awesome, cooked to perfection with all the trimmings. The service was excellent under the brilliant supervision of Zoran our maître D’.

Time to pack our bags

In preparation for disembarkation following morning, we needed to pack our bags and have them outside our stateroom by 10 pm. We took advantage of the poor weather to pack in the morning after breakfast while the ship made way from Glacier Bay to Prince William Sound. 

There wasn’t much to see because of the clouds and fog. Otherwise, we would have typically waited until the last possible moment to pack. This leg of the cruise takes place in open water in the Gulf of Alaska, so the ride is a bit bumpier than in the Inside Passage. By the seventh day, our sea legs were well established so this was not uncomfortable.

Arrival in Whittier

The ship docked in Whittier shortly after midnight where it waited patiently until the next morning. All the necessary information about the process, along with some colour-coded luggage tags, had been delivered to our stateroom the previous morning.

Passengers are divided into groups based on their travel arrangements. Since we decided to remain in Anchorage for a couple of additional days, we were in the Silver group and among the last to leave the ship bringing our Alaska cruise aboard the Grand Princess to a close. But there was more to come…

Alaska Cruise Day 8 – College Fjord from Whittier, AK

The ship docks during the night, but passengers only leave the following morning. The disembarkation process is well orchestrated. After a hearty breakfast in the Horizon Court, were made our way with our carry-on bags to the Botticelli dining room on deck 5 to await our turn. After a short wait, we were invited to leave the ship. The process was very efficient and stress free, though we were sad to go.

To See the Glaciers Up Close

By nine, most everyone is off the ship, heading to the airport, to the land portion of a cruise tour or, as we did, taking the Cruise of the 26 glaciers hosted by Phillips cruises in Whittier, AK. 

Only steps away from the ship, the day cruise abord the M/V Bravest gets underway at 12:15 giving you plenty of time to explore the deep-water port of Whittier and talk with the locals about their village and history.

Exploring Whittier

We had plenty of time to explore the town and its bustling marina. Hundreds of fishing vessels are docked there and the traffic of boats coming and going at the launch ramp was constant. We’ve never seen so many boats and pickup trucks in one place!

We had a chance to chat with the locals and lear more about the town. Whittier was originally a US Army base during WWII because of its deep water port which remains free of ice in winter. Contrary to what can be found on Wikipedia, the population does not ALL live in a single building (Begich Towers) although that might have been the case at one time. Now there are two additional housing complexes in which the resident dwell. Still, that’s a lot of concentration for a small town. 

About Whittier, AK

Whittier is about 90 minutes from Anchorage, so we were curious as to why cruise liners dock here in Whittier, rather than in Anchorage. The answer came from a local tour guide who explained that it’s because the latter has only 12 feet of water at low tide making the harbor too shallow for cruise liners like the Grand Princess.

By noon it was time to board the M/V Bravest for our 26-glacier cruise. The M/VBravest is a high-speed catamaran, with an average speed of 32 knots. It holds up to 286 passengers on two decks and was formerly a New York commuter ferry that assisted with the evacuation of Manhattan on September 11th. Completely refitted with massive engines, it really moves!

We really had to bundle up for this cruise because of the high speed at which the M/V Bravest travels. 32 knots is roughly 60 kph/37 mph so the wind chill was significant. Windproof outwear and several layers of insulation are required. On Day 8, the weather had substantially improved though overcast. So we had an unobstructed view of the glaciers, with the occasional whip of fog.

Harvard and Yale Glaciers

They say that timing is everything. When we were in for a treat. As we arrived at Harvard Glacier, we spotted not one but two glacial phenomenon. The first is referred to as Glacial Calving, whereby a huge chunk of ice detaches from the glacier face and fall into the sea. In the video you can see this happening as we watched. Don’t be fooled by the size of the block of ice. It looks small but was actually the size of a house.

The second, much less common, was a Glacial Moulin, a river of muddy water running beneath the glacier and emerging at the base of the glacier. This roiling mixture of melt water and glacial silt coloured the surrounding waters as it gushed for several minutes before slowing to a trickle. Both the captain and the park ranger were both surprised by this phenomenon which they hadn’t witness before.

College Fjord Wildlife

This was by far the most productive day of our Alaska cruise in terms of wildlife sightings. Throughout the day, we spotted humpback whales, sea otters, gulls and terns, harbor seals, black bears, sea lions, and of course… eagles. The black bear we spotted had been swimming across Esther Passage towards the island which is home to South Esther Island State Marine Park and a salmon hatchery. A group of rowdy sea lions bask in the sun on the Eggs Rock rookery off Esther Island. A young humpback whale swims by just below the surface blowing water repeatedly, but no breaching.

Heading to Anchorage

At the end of the day, we disembarked the M/V Bravest and made our way to the rental vehicle that was awaiting us in the marina parking lot. It had been dropped of the previous day by Alaska Car Rental. A beautiful brand new white Suburban with room for six and luggage.

Only problem was a pool of what looked like transmission oil on the ground under the vehicle. The harbourmaster who stopped to help offered to arrange transport to Anchorage. And the train to Anchorage was waiting at the station and could take us onboard.

But in the end, no worries, the rental company had another identical vehicle standing by in the lot and within a few minutes, we were underway. What’s particular about Whittier is that it can only be reached by vehicle by using the Anton Anderson tunnel, the longest shared rail and vehicle tunnel in the US. It is a single lane tunnel that operate in alternating directions on the hour and half hour.

Day 9 – Anchorage

Arriving in Anchorage, we were surprised. It was not what we were expecting! Perhaps in a good way. Anchorage is a modern city with a large downtown area and lots of museums and cultural attractions. A far cry from the gold-rush style towns like Ketchikan and Skagway. There is a lot to see and do. Particularly the various museums throughout the city.

We were a little pooped from our cruise and lacked the energy to go exploring. Unfortunately, we missed Potter’s Marsh and its boardwalk, ideal for viewing birds, salmon and the occasional Moose but if we return, it’s on the list.

Driving to the downtown area, we made our way to the Visitor Information Center – a log-cabin-style structure in the heart of Downtown. The staff at the information desk were cheerful and helpful providing a detailed city map and great advice on what to see and do.

Trolley tour

These one-hour tours leave on the half-hour from the visitor information center in Downtown Anchorage. You have an option of hop-on/hop-off, or 60-minute tour. Our entertaining tour guide provided detailed commentary on the city and the moments that marked its history including the 1964 earthquake, during which 115 people lost their lives. 

The 9.2 magnitude quake is the biggest on record in the US and the second largest in the world after the 9.5 quake that occurred in Chile in 1960. The quake lasted 4.5 minutes during which is collapsed entire neighborhoods and destroyed much of what is now the downtown area. There is a park dedicated to the event. The earthquake’s devastation explains at least in part why downtown is so modern.

We visited various neighborhoods outside of the downtown core. Near the municipal airport, home to hundreds of float planes (1 in 2 Alaska residents have a pilot’s licence) we crossed paths with one of Anchorage’s 1500 Moose in residence. It was a yearling, so the mother must have been close by, but did not make an appearance.

Day 10 – The Journey Back Home

On our final day, we packed our bags and prepared for the voyage back home. Heading to the airport was very short and easy drive. The terminal building is modern, with all the necessary services. Danielle took advantage of the wait to purchase some last-minute souvenirs at a gift shop before boarding the flight.

Modern airport terminal with shops, food courts. 

Connection in YVR. Smooth connection and efficient clearance through customs and immigration. Good job CBSA! The new digital kiosks speed things up. We had also used the ArriveCan app to prepare our customs declaration. 

We went to the Maple Leaf lounge which seemed recently renovated. The food selection was excellent (butter chicken ?) and so was the wine. The selection featuring some local BC wines of excellent quality. Because we have an AMEX Reserve Card, we have access to the Lounge and can each bring one guest. 

Redeye Flight to Montreal

Cruise Pro Tip: If you book your travel with Princess EZAir, Air Canada will charge you for all your extras in US dollars:  Baggage, seat selection and upgrades. Even if you’re a Canadian customer and Aeroplan member. Beware.

We decided to bid on an upgrade to business class so we could get the extra leg room that allowed us to sleep for a few hours before landing in Montreal. The flight was uneventful and we were able to sleep for most the the flight. Although the in-flight movie selection was excellent, we decided to pass. It’s important do get as much sleep as you can to offset the time zone difference (4 hours). Melatonin helps with that.

Arriving in Montreal, we retrieved our luggage and car (parked at the in-terminal airport hotel) and headed home, our heads and hearts filled with amazing memories of one of the most picturesque places on earth.

Author’s Note: Writing this blog post, which took close to 2 weeks to prepare, was a great way of extending the journey and reliving and sharing all the magic moments that our Alaska cruise vacation had to offer. I highly recommend it. Danielle and I made a vow to devote more time to travel and exploration. Next stop: Northern Italy and Tuscany in September/October.